My social media feeds are filled with people expressing sorrow. Friends and family from around the world have called and messaged to commiserate and say how much they loved his shows. I didn’t know Anthony Bourdain personally. I didn’t get a chance to meet him in Mumbai. And yet I understand why so many have shared their grief so openly. That’s because Bourdain belonged to everyone. Not just the food community.
Right from his first essay ‘Don’t Eat Before Reading This’, which brought him international acclaim, Bourdain has been showing us a world we have never seen before. The piece, published by The New Yorker, took us on a short journey to a place we never thought was worth visiting, but when he revealed its secrets, suddenly everyone wanted to peek in. And all he wrote about was the workings of a New York restaurant kitchen. When to eat fish (because the supplies came in only weekly); how restaurants used brunches to finish up wilting produce; and why hollandaise sauce is the copulating ground for bacteria. The article, which was later expanded into the book Kitchen Confidential, changed the way people looked and ate at restaurants.
It also catapulted Bourdain to fame. Not as a chef, but as a plain-speaking, gonzo-style raconteur who talked about food without gushing over it. What endeared him to me, and to his viewers, was his willingness to engage with food in its own context and on its own terms. He didn’t want it gussied up for him, he didn’t care if the surroundings weren’t salubrious, and it didn’t matter who was breaking bread, or spooning rice with him. It was completely fitting that he and Obama ate at Bún Chả Hương Liên, a modest Hanoi restaurant strewn with plastic chairs and metal tables, bonding over “cheap but delicious noodles,” while filming for his CNN travel show Parts Unknown.
One of my favourite episodes is from No Reservations, the travel series that propelled him to celebrity status. Shot in Indonesia it ends with a meal in Bali and features one of Bourdain’s favourite food: pork. My jaw dropped as I watched a whole suckling pig being spit-roasted while being basted in coconut water for six hours. The result was a skin so crisp that Bourdain believed it was better than anything a French chef could ever come up with.
But it was not as though he loved everything he ate. He spoke brazenly about his personal likes and dislikes and didn’t propagate the idea that you had to like a meal just because it’s ‘exotic’. It was important to appreciate and understand why a dish was cooked in a certain way, but you didn’t necessarily have to like it. It was this honesty that set him apart from other travel show presenters who gush over every bite they take. Eat widely, eat boldly was Bourdain’s message, but don’t let the experience overwhelm your personal tastes.
What comes across most strongly while watching Bourdain is his desire to engage with anything new non-judgementally. Sometimes it meant discarding his prejudices. An avowed meat-eater who relished meat, offal, and stinky cheese, he willingly accepted that vegetarian food in India was quite delicious. He travelled not just to experience something new but to experience something that took him outside of his comfort zone—to go to places not listed in guide books and eat with locals the way they ate it.
Food was Bourdain’s tool of choice to understand the complexities of the world and we are grateful to him for teaching us how to wield it.
Antoine Lewis lives to eat and writes to live. As a journalist, he’s spent the last twenty years digging through culinary histories, sniffing out emerging food trends and eating his way through the world's best, and worst, restaurants.